Monday, 20 May 2024

Biden can push back on Russia by supporting its neighbors in the Caucasus

By Janusz Bugajski

In his first major foreign policy address, President Biden called for a restoration of America’s alliances and greater U.S. diplomatic engagement. Biden also asserted that he would push back on Russia’s foreign aggression and domestic authoritarianism. A good place for the president to demonstrate his new approach would be with Georgia, a linchpin in the strategic Black Sea region. Georgia was the first victim of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on the national independence and democratic development of neighboring states, and Moscow’s aggression against this close U.S. ally continues to this day.

Georgia’s statehood and democracy present an alternative regional model to Putin’s autocratic rule and attempts to limit the sovereignty of neighboring states. Since its military seizure of 20 percent of Georgian territory in August 2008, the Kremlin has employed a legion of subversive tools, from disinformation and corruption to cyberattacks and armed threats to destabilize the government in Tbilisi.

Georgia’s democracy was strengthened during the October 2020 general elections. The country’s transformation into a parliamentary democracy has been assisted by Washington and Brussels. Both helped to facilitate a multi-party agreement on a phased transition to a fully proportional electoral system that better represents voters.

In a further sign of democratic progress, Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and founder of the governing Georgian Dream party, announced that he is stepping aside from politics. The billionaire former party leader pledged to transfer most of his wealth (close to $5 billion) to philanthropic foundations and concentrate on charitable work.

During Ivanishvili’s time in politics, Georgia moved closer to Western institutions by signing an association agreement with the European Union (EU), prioritizing NATO entry and deepening security cooperation with the U.S. Georgia has also initiated democratic reforms that placed the country on a par with several EU members regarding the rule of law and anti-corruption indicators. Ivanishvili’s departure from politics despite Georgian Dream’s electoral win could serve as an important precedent, at a time when some national leaders find it difficult to concede power even after losing elections.

A Dec. 2020 poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) indicates that 80 percent of Georgian citizens support EU membership and 74 percent approve of joining NATO. Support for NATO has soared by 12 percentage points over the past 10 years. Integration into the EU and NATO has been enshrined as a guiding goal in Georgia’s constitution, and the government has set an ambitious target to apply for EU membership by 2024.

Aspirations for Western integration have been driven by incessant threats from Moscow. Control over Georgia would enable Russia to claim regional dominance in the South Caucasus and Black Sea regions, threaten vital energy and trade links between Europe and Asia, and severely curtail American and European influence.

Georgia’s strategic partnership with the U.S., forged in 2009, restricts Russia’s aggressive ambitions. Continuity in U.S. policy toward Georgia was demonstrated by the Trump administration when it strengthened the country’s defenses through supplies of military hardware, particularly Javelin missile systems. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asserted that the door to NATO membership remains open for Georgia. Georgia now needs assistance in establishing an effective naval force to defend its coastline, an increased U.S. military presence and a clearer roadmap for NATO inclusion.

Moscow escalated its military involvement in the South Caucasus in Nov. 2020 following the short war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over occupied Azeri territories. By injecting its troops into Azerbaijan, ostensibly as peace-keepers, Moscow has in effect turned most of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh enclave into a Russian protectorate. Russia already possesses two military bases in Armenia and continues to militarize occupied Georgian territories.

Georgian strategic isolation would boost Russia’s aspirations to use the Black Sea as a launching pad for projecting military power toward the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Moscow’s extensive military build-up in the Black Sea is also intended to control major sea-lanes, maritime economic zones and energy transit into Europe. Georgia’s path toward NATO, firmly backed by Washington, would be a deterrent to further Russian aggrandizement and send a signal to Armenia and Azerbaijan that they can also liberate themselves from Moscow’s suffocating grip.

Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, D.C. His recent book, “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” is co-authored with Margarita Assenova. His upcoming book is entitled “Failed State: Planning for Russia’s Rupture.